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How Obama can help Libya

Timidity can cost lives, in war and in diplomacy. The United States and NATO were right to intervene in Libya this spring. Moammar Gaddafi’s forces were at the gates of Benghazi, hours away from overrunning the city and brutally ending the Libyan people’s struggle for freedom from Gadhafi’s 40-year dictatorship. 

Libyans will forever remember the U.S. leadership during their hour of great need. They and our allies are watching the debate between President Obama and Congress over who has authority to authorize this mission - which the House has declined to give the president - and whether the president can continue military support. 

The opposition leaders in Libya, the Transitional National Council, understand that this debate must be resolved internally. 

But separate from the war powers debate, the president could give the TNC much of what it needs with one diplomatic stroke. The power to recognize successor governments of foreign states lies solely with the executive branch.

The president has already recognized the TNC as “the legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has met with TNC leaders, has said that the TNC is the institution through which the U.S. government “engages” the Libyan people. France, Italy, Germany, Canada, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and others have given some level of recognition. 

When the president’s top diplomat for the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, visited Benghazi this month, he found a sense of joy, opportunity and gratitude to the United States unlike anything he had seen in his diplomatic career. “The TNC seems sincere in its commitment to building an inclusive, democratic Libya that is a partner with us,” he wrote. “And they are working to build functioning, accountable institutions from scratch, in the midst of an ongoing conflict.”

Feltman noted the contrast with the Gadhafi regime, which has vowed to hunt down “like rats” anyone who opposes the colonel. 

But the State Department mandate remains unclear. State invited the TNC to open an office in Washington but noted in discussions this month that it would not be possible to provide access to the Libyan Embassy, its vehicles or its small bank account because Gadhafi has asked that they be preserved for his regime. U.S. officials acknowledge that Gadhafi forces have burned down the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. Yet the administration continues to stall on providing full diplomatic recognition to the TNC.

Why wait? 

Full diplomatic recognition would, first and foremost, legitimize the struggle of the TNC on behalf of the Libyan people against the Gadhafi regime. It would strip Gadhafi of any vestige of legal or diplomatic status to claim he is Libya’s rightful leader; would allow the TNC to oversee the $34 billion in Gadhafi assets frozen in the United States (funds that really belong to the Libyan people); and would reassure the international community that the TNC, not Gadhafi’s regime, has the right to transfer valid title to Libya’s natural resources.

The latter are critical to taking away Gadhafi’s financial advantage. Recognition would speed up a process begun when legislation — supported by the administration —  was introduced in the Senate this month to confiscate Gadhafi’s frozen assets for humanitarian efforts in Libya. Unfortunately, that legislation is intertwined, and now bogged down, with the dispute over the 1973 War Powers Resolution.

DAVID M. TAFURI , a State Department official from 2006 to 2007, is a partner at Patton Boggs and serves as legal counsel to the Transitional National Council of Libya.